An admiration for architecture and monuments of the Soviet and communist-era
If I could go back in time with the express purpose of just purely travelling, I would choose two periods. The first would be the early to mid-seventies. Flares and dodgy haircuts aside, this would have been the best time to travel overland between Europe and Asia. I think to have visited Iran pre-revolution would have been fascinating and it was also the right time to have travelled through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, there were far fewer travellers around back then compared to these days but there would have been enough to ensure that you would have met some interesting characters along the way and this, combined with the journey itself, would have made for a memorable experience. I’ve only met a few people old enough to have travelled along the original Hippy Trail, but those I have spoken to about it always rank it as one of the best things they have ever done travel-wise.
The other time period I would pick would be the mid to late 1980s and I would have chosen to travel deep behind the Iron Curtain through Eastern Europe and what was then the Soviet Union.
Compared to the carefree Asia overland trail of the 1970s, the experience of travelling through such countries as Poland, Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria would have been very different indeed. A large dose of suspicion, a severe lack of freedom to do what you want, language barriers, minimal contact with locals, strict visa regulations, and a shortage of decent food are but a few of the barriers that would have presented themselves when visiting that part of the world in the late 1980s.
Yet, it still goes at the top of my imaginary time-travel list for the simple reason: I have a deep fascination with Soviet and communist-era architecture.
Like most, Kirsty and I began our exploration of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as well as the Caucasus and Central Asia (both of which were part of the USSR), in a conventional way. Attractions such as pretty market towns, medieval fortresses, jaw-dropping coastlines and towering mountains were all high on our agenda. We enjoyed seeing them and more besides and it didn’t take us long to realise that this part of the world, especially the Balkans and Eastern Europe, were right up our street.
Over time, we began combining conventional sightseeing with more unusual stuff and in particular, we started to notice (and admire) what many would describe as the ugly side of the region – over-the-top memorials and monuments, concrete-overkill housing estates and space-aged looking government buildings etc. – in other words, heritage dating back to communist time.
My interest became more than cursory when Kirsty and I visited Bratislava in Slovakia. Our Eastern Europe Lonely Planet guide had a section entitled Socialist Bratislava, in which it mentioned such places as the Slovak Radio Station and the Slavin Memorial as worthy places to go and see. We had spotted the Slovak Radio Building on our walk into the centre of the city from the railway station upon our arrival and I made a comment along the lines of what the bloody hell is that? But I was impressed, who wouldn’t be – it’s an upsidedown concrete and steel pyramid – and for want of a better word, I had my first communist-era building moment. We visited all the other places recommended in Lonely Planet and a few weeks later I wrote my first blog post on the subject.
For me, it was an instant fascination in vestiges from that era. For Kirsty, it has been more of a slow burner. She certainly doesn’t raise her eyebrows as much these days when I suggest we walk 50 minutes out of our way to look at a housing estate or to track down an obscure-looking monument, and every now and then she lets slip the same level of childlike excitement that I often display when we find something as incredible as the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State in the Bulgarian town of Shumen.
We work well as a team. I spend ages researching and locating these ideological monoliths and brutalist superstructures and Kirsty patiently plots them all on a map and plans a suitable route. Some are easy to find, others not so and every now and then we come across somewhere or something by accident – either way, it now takes up quite a bit of our planning and plotting time when we are in this part of the world.
We also still go and see the pretty market squares, the medieval fortresses, the jaw-dropping coastlines etc. I’ve tried suggesting to Kirsty that, when we are short on time, perhaps we could forgo a wander around yet another Old Town (when we’ve seen two or three that week anyway) in favour of some obscure monument on the outskirts of the city but I simply get the daggers and that it ain’t gonna happen look. It’s fair enough I guess and, anyway, I also enjoy that aspect of our travels in the region. Because we travel full time, we can normally take as long as we need in any given destination and instances like the one above are not that common – we just fit everything in!
The Mound of Glory on the outskirts of Minsk, Belarus
By the way, Tourist Information Centres are of little help when it comes to locating such places and monuments. They either know nothing of their existence or get their hackles up and question why you want to see them in the first place. I understand this attitude. Communist-era monuments and buildings can be a sensitive subject sometimes, especially for those who lived through the period.
Many of the particularly imposing buildings from this era are also still government or military-owned and still in use. Both visiting and taking photos of them can be tricky sometimes and even land you in trouble. I’m not hardcore enough to have got myself into serious trouble as of yet. I walk away, or least put the camera down if the situation isn’t looking good.
I am by no means an expert on communist-era architecture, far from it in fact. To begin with, I would identify what I wanted to see based on what was pleasing to my eye. I wasn’t especially interested in the history attached to the subject matter and I wasn’t concerned about who the architect was. This has definitely changed over time. I have spent time reading about the difference between Brutalist, Modernist and Stalinist styles of architecture, for example, as well as the history attached to many of the memorials we see, in particular spomeniks (Tito-era World War II-related monuments and memorials in the Former Yugoslavia) and monuments constructed to commemorate and glorify the Bulgarian State.
And while I’m on the subject of time. I have learnt that there is a relative sense of urgency when it comes to looking for such things. Not so much the buildings but more the monuments which, in certain parts of the region, are becoming fewer every year. Many of these countries no longer wanted dominating ideological reminders of a recent history they didn’t particularly ask for or enjoy. More liberal communist countries such as Hungary and Poland tore down many of their statues and monuments that hark back to that era years ago, whereas with others it has been more of a latter-day event. Ukraine, for example, has recently introduced a formal decommunisation process, which began in April 2015 and included the pulling down of Lenin statues throughout the country.
Not everything that was removed was destroyed or destined to end its days on the scrap heap. There are a few museums, such as Grutus Park in Lithuania and the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia, which have salvaged/preserved monuments, artwork, mementoes and other knick-knacks from the period and put them on display.
In other countries, it is the elements that will eventually result in their demise. Bulgaria is one of the best places for hunting down remnants from the communist era. There are some really impressive structures scattered all over the country, such as the Three Generations Monument in Perushtitsa and the Buzludzha Monument near Shipka, but these two examples and others are either abandoned or in a very poor state of repair. The same goes for many of the spomeniks mentioned above. It’s the main reason I would use my imaginary time machine to travel back to 1980s Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc – to have seen such monuments in all their glory would have been quite something.
I appreciate this is a rather niche (you could argue anorak) type of hobby/interest but I’m definitely not alone. There are several websites and social media sites that are either fully or partially dedicated to the topic. Plus there are other travel bloggers and writers who enjoy visiting and writing about the same subject. I have a long list of useful websites and articles listed in my bookmark bar. Some draw you in with wonderful prose and atmospheric photographs (*) but leave you dangling by omitting vital information such as the full name or location of whatever it is they are writing about, while others are more willing to share their knowledge and provide useful information such as exact coordinates and how to visit using public transport.
(*) While I’m on the subject of photography, you might notice that, generally, the majority of our photos are taken on nice sunny days. There is no denying that the type of building/monument we are talking about here looks way cooler when it is photographed in bad or moody light. But that invariably means being in Europe or the countries of the former Soviet Union during the winter months and we are too wimpy for that. I wish we weren’t, I would love a collection of atmospheric Post-Modernist and Socialist-era classics, but neither of us especially like the cold, so it’s not going to happen anytime soon!
It is an interest that is gaining momentum for us. We have visited every country in Eastern Europe and the Balkans and between us, we have travelled to thirteen of the fifteen countries that previously made up the Soviet Union. Plus we have been to the self-proclaimed states of Transnistria and Nagorno–Karabakh. We have recently (Spring 2017) completed a road trip around Serbia, where our predominant interest was tracking down spomeniks and soon we will be heading to Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro in order to do the same thing. We will end the summer of 2017 with six weeks or so in Ukraine, a highly underrated country that is still a great hunting ground for Soviet-era architecture despite the recent decommunisation laws mentioned earlier.
At some point in the future we know we have to tackle Russia, a country Kirsty has only visited briefly and one that I have not been to at all but, for the time being, we have plenty to occupy our thirst for unapologetic, over-the-top brutal beauty.
We haven’t visited Southeast Asia for about 18 months – that’s a very long time for us and at the end of this summer (2017) we will return for an extended period. I’ll confess, I’m a little nervous about it – will I be able to slip back into Asian ways after spending so long away? Plus will my architectural tastes have changed that much that I will no longer find a temple or an ancient ruin appealing? And what if I can’t find contentment on a tropical beach, cold beer in hand watching the sun go down – nightmare. Only time will tell!
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